Oregon Opioid Plan Would Do 'Substantially More Harm'

By Pat Anson, Editor

A proposed change in Oregon’s Medicaid program would result in the forced tapering of many pain patients off opioid medication and do “substantially more harm than good,” according to a group of pain physicians, academics and patient advocates.

At issue is a recommendation by a task force to limit Oregon Health Plan coverage of opioids to just 90-days for five broad chronic pain conditions – including fibromyalgia and chronic pain caused by trauma.  Medicaid patients with those conditions taking opioids beyond 90 days would lose coverage for the pain relievers and be encouraged to use alternative pain therapies such as yoga, acupuncture and physical therapy, which would be covered under the plan.

“We recently learned of efforts by the Oregon Medicaid Pain Task Force to deny coverage of opioids beyond 90 days for most chronic pain conditions and, effectively, to mandate the taper of current patients receiving opioid therapy. We believe that such efforts risk doing substantially more harm than good,” wrote Kate Nicholson, a civil rights attorney and pain patient, in a letter to Oregon health officials. The letter was co-signed by over a dozen  physicians, academics and advocates.

“An across-the-board denial of opioid therapy for the huge umbrella category of chronic pain is as destructive as is liberally prescribing opioids for all types of chronic pain,” the letter warns. “The denial of coverage to the Medicaid population, in particular, is likely to have a disproportionate impact on individuals with disabilities, on the sickest patients and those with multiple chronic conditions.”

Oregon’s Health Evidence Review Commission will review the proposal at its August 9th meeting. The commission could give final approval as early as October, but the opioid restrictions would not go into effect until 2020, according to the Bend Bulletin.


“Individuals with chronic pain really face debilitating conditions that impact quality of life, yet we’re faced with this significant opioid epidemic where we know there’s a lot of misuse and overprescribing,” Dr. Dana Hargunani, chief medical officer for the Oregon Health Authority, told the Bulletin. “We’re trying to use evidence to guide us, but we really welcome public input into the process. I know it’s a really significant issue for many individuals.” 

Opioid prescribing in Oregon has been declining for years – as it has nationwide – yet the state has “one of the highest rates of prescription opioid abuse in the nation,” according to the Oregon Health Authority. An average of three Oregonians die every week from an opioid overdose. However, many of those deaths involve the “non-medical” use of opioid pain relievers by drug abusers, not patients.

The 2013 National Survey on Drug Use and Health found Oregon to have the highest rate of non-medical use of prescription pain relievers in the country.

“I’m very sad for the people who OD’d,” pain patient Steve Hix told the Bulletin. “But what’s that got to do with me?”